If you already know what the internet of things is, keep reading. If you want to learn what the IoT revolution has to do with net neutrality and your children’s quality of life, watch this explanation from Jeremy Rifkin. Then ask yourself if the internet is really just media or public utility of the future.
Yesterday President Obama suggested to the FCC that the internet be reclassified as a public utility. In doing so, he signals that internet today must be considered key societal infrastructure. If we accept that the next evolutionary step for the internet is in the industries that today deliver utility services, this reclassification doesn’t seem too far out, does it?
Net neutrality proponents have long argued that keeping the internet an equal service for everyone is an essential cornerstone for innovations, participation entrepreneurialism and what has been dubbed the collaborative economy. With an unequal, multi-tiered system the opponents suggest, small start-ups and entrepreneur will have even lesser access to eyeballs and markets due to slow upload time etc. The critics of net neutrality argue that precisely because technology innovators have greater need for internet speed, a tiered system should be offered so low-level users are not forced to pay the same rate as heavy users. They argue that to incentivice the ISP providers invest in expanding its services fairly, they have to seek profit models that provide an autostrada for some, and congested city streets for others. This is the ongoing conflict.
The engine of today’s economy is no longer made of atoms, but of bits. Since we rely so extensively on what we in the nineties called the “information superhighway”, decent internet access is to younger generations what horse power in automotive vehicles was to Boomers. It is not unreasonable to claim that the Internet today is what the railroad system, postal service and electricity were in the past.
An occlusion of trends makes net neutrality particularly salient at the moment. As society we are transforming our ideas around how content should be created, delivered and consumed. Instead of clear distinctions between consumers and producers we are starting to see the emerging ‘prosumer’. You Tube celebrities, once regular users who just happen to build a viral fanbase now enjoy more fame and popularity among the youngest cohorts than traditional celebrities do, yet a testimony to the internet as the great equalizer. There are probably both period effects and cohort effects behind this trend, meaning that younger generations are particularly adapted to this new environment, but older generations are getting conditioned too. We are also starting to see the glimpse of a new type of internet that not only exchanges information between people, but also between nodes in a physical internet on which our lives are starting to depend. This could cause challenges for more centrally controlled manufacturers and utility providers. No wonder stakeholders are concerned!
There are more than technological reasons for why our younger generations are so interactive. But learning to maneuver a sophisticated web 2.0 at a young age has a lot to do with it. In the following paragraphs I will suggest some driving forces behind what could be called The Collaborative Generation(s), and why I believe we might see a dramatic disruption of the youngest generations’ trajectory should the internet change its intrinsic power balance.
- Horizontal power structures. Of course, power structures are no more horizontal now than they used to be, quite on the contrary. But younger generations have grown up with fewer hierarchical authority figures in their personal lives, and have come to expect horizontal structures elsewhere, hence the difficulties managers often have in managing millennials. From a net neutrality perspective this might be why in polls internet service providers come out as the most hated industries of all. Younger generations see them as little more than middle men skimming profits from a life-essential need.
- Self-realization. Compared to only a third of generation X, 64% of generation Z craves fulfillment and opportunities for self-realization in their lives. This is why so many of this generation curate so much of their personas in online networks and why so many want to pursue entrepreneurial careers even though they don’t necessarily want the risks involved. You see this spirit every time you read about a barely teenage entrepreneur who spend long hours in the bedroom or local hackerspace coming up with products their elders can’t even begin to understand. We also see this tendency when companies find new ways to let them as customers individualize products and consequently influence corporate R&D.
- User-Generated Feedback. Consumers can wield enormous power over companies by having access to a medium that allows them to post feedback, customer reviews and general social media buzz. In many ways social media has allowed civilian users to take over much of the power that once was reserved journalists and professional whistleblowers. Yelp, Google Local and Bazaarvoice are all examples of arenas that facilitate online open venues for honest conversations about products and services. Millennials and post-millennials are growing up taking access to this digital megaphone for granted. What would happen if a large company could pay an ISP to throttle, or even outright block, negative reviews or critical journalistic reporting?
- The Sharing Economy, aka Collaborative Economy. Esty, Uber and Airbnb are examples of new economic networks where people trade products and services directly instead of being mediated by large vertically integrated companies. The peer-to-peer economy is still in its infancy and depends on an equal playing field to work. Younger generations, often excluded from the traditional labor exchanges in today’s economy, have started to rely on this system to make ends meet. If the pipes providing communication in these networks are rigged in favor of big money, smaller traders on the fringe will become marginalized. If this happens, the p2p economy will continue to look like the online version of classified newspaper ads it quite frankly still looks like. It will never go to the next level and realize its full potential.
- The internet of things. The days when the internet was merely about exchanging non-physical communication are about to end. The internet is starting to enter the brick-and-mortar world where our physical environment is regulated by sensors mediator over the internet. 10 years from now we might be receiving (and selling) our energy in distributed networks. We might organize transportation and production of physical items via logistic networks communicated via the internet. We might have sensors attached to almost everything which will regulate supply and demand and alert us when our attention is needed. We might completely bypass conventional supply chains for some of the goods and services we need on a regular basis. Even healthcare could be organized via the internet. Would you want your grandma’s pacemaker to rely on the slow lane because she can’t afford to pay her ISP for premium access? These are definitely wildcard scenarios, but they should not be dismissed.
The three youngest generations living today, Gen X, Millennials and Homelanders, are the first ones to experience less financial security than their parents had at the same age. At the same time the large Boomer generation is about to enter retirement age without having the funds to provide for longer lives. In other words, almost every generation living today might have to look to technology to provide solutions that were not secured for them with the second industrial revolution. It is too early to say where this will lead, but net neutrality will continue to be a hot topic for a while. This is one of those major contingencies that determines the opportunities of the next generation, and After the Millennials will continue to monitor this space closely.